Wednesday, 31 May 2006

Engage!

To help our freezing joints over the weekend, we sat on our comfy sofa on Friday night, ignited the heating, and watched the very last episode of Star Trek the Next Generation on laserdisc.
Laserdisc watching is a rarity these days; we probably do it less than five times a year. I think the last time we watched a laser was the day before we bought the Canyonero, when we watched Schindler's List (I remember that mostly because one of the car salespeople we met that next day told us his grandfather is a Schindler's List survivee; a typical sales people's reaction to hearing that I'm an Israeli).
This Friday night there was no particular reason for us watching Star Trek TNG other than the fact Jo was in sci-fi mood and we exhausted our sci-fi stocks (as in we watched it all relatively lately).
Anyway, it really got to us. We truly enjoyed the episode. We liked it so much that on the next day we watched another episode I have on laserdisc, the famous Borg one where Ryker separates the saucer and Picard becomes a Borg. We liked this one, too, and we are looking forward to watching more of them.
Thing is, I liked these episodes because they were good drama, but I like them even more because they remind me of a "lost" period. You see, I watched my TNG episodes between 1991 and 1994 on Sky 1, which at the time was available on cable in Israel. TNG was playing every night between 23:00 and midnight. I also did my military service between 1990 and 1993, which means that most of the episodes were watched when I got back home from my army base. I had lots of weekend TNG marathons during weekends, and watched many an episode late at night before waking up at 5:15am to catch the bus to the base again.
Most of the time I taped TNG. I had a program on the VCR that would tape every week night between 23:00 to 0:00, and I programmed the cable box to jump to Sky 1 every night at 23:00. Thing is, I had to be cunning there; I wasn't the only one interested in the cable box, so I had to program it to switch to Sky 1 at 23:55, 23:56, 23:57, 23:58 and 23:59 to counter selfish family members who intended on spoiling my TNG parties. I will never forget my sister's complaints about the "shit cable box" that "kept jumping between channels at night" and wouldn't allow her to watch whatever crap she wanted to watch. Ah, the power that comes from being able to program machinery! Feels almost like using the Force!
But it's not just that funny aspect I got to think of when we watched TNG again this weekend. It was more to do with how much I liked the program and how it was a part of me and my life at the time. And it's more to do with how that time was different to current times: yes, I was in the army, which was shitty, but I also had zero worries and no commitments; life just floated by carelessly, and my main worry was how quickly I could catch a ride to take me from my base to my parents' place. Today life is severely different and there's no one there to take care of me (other than Jo, who does a pretty good job at it); life 15 years ago seems like a foolish person's life, almost like the life of a cow that happily grazes grass - totally unfamiliar to the fact it is about to be butchered into a sausage.
These reflections made me think on how times have changed with regards to the way I consume my entertainment. Back in the early 90's, I didn't have much entertainment available; TNG was not something that I picked out of all that was available for me to enjoy, it was pretty much the only thing available that I could enjoy.
This craving for contents was the major reason for me getting into laserdiscs in the first place. Up until the late 90's most of my entertainment came from watching the same laserdiscs over and over again and again. It was actually even worse before that: as a kid, for example, I was so hungry for reading material that I read shit like the book the owner of Humus Picanti wrote as a revenge on the taxation officers that indicted him (if you don't know what Humus Picanti is, consider yourselves lucky). I read shit like Erich Von Denicken's Chariots of the Gods. I was hungry, and there wasn't much to pick from.
Today the scene is completely different. There is so much out there, so much contents to pick from, so much of it easily and cheaply available - off the air, off the internet, off the video store, off Amazon and Borders - and there's just not enough time for me to consume it.
The situation makes me ask myself: If TNG was to be broadcast today, as a new series, with Patrick Stewart et al, would I even notice it? Would I watch it? Would I care about it? It would just be another drop in the ocean; another thing I might watch once in a while or download for the sake of being able to download. It would not feel like it is a part of me.
And that, my friends, is what scares me so much. Today's world of consumerism has turned us into consuming addicts that just want to consume and consume to the point we don't notice and we don't appreciate what we consume. Because things are so easy to acquire, we don't give a shit about them and we dump them quickly to replace them with the next big thing.
Yet again I learn that the best things in life, the things you appreciate the most and that benefit you the most, are the things that are not easy to acquire.

State of Affairs

It's time for political complaining.
I've said it on The Age before: Australia is a one party state. On one hand we have the Liberals spreading monetary gifts allover the place in a totally unconstructive way with their federal budget, and on the other hand we have Labor's Steve Bracks doing exactly the same with the Victorian budget.
What's the deal with Bracks' $300 payout to parents whose kids start school?
What good will it do to the parents? It's not enough to make a difference, unless the parents are truly poor. Thing is, this money will go to rich parents sending their kids to $20,000 a year private schools just the same, and what good will it do to those parents? They'd be able to buy their kid the new iPod they always wanted?
It's an obvious election ploy, and it's pathetic that no sincere attempt is made to improve education. Why not spend the money towards making state schools better, so that people wouldn't have to send their kids to private schools in the first place?
And on that matter, why are private school funded by the government in the first place? Aren't they supposed to be private?
It's a sad state of affairs when the supposed leaders are acting so pathetically with our money.

Tuesday, 30 May 2006

Don't say a prayer for me now

According to a multi million dollar research quoted in Scientific American (mostly as a matter of ridiculing, I suspect, given the editorial views which are pretty well aligned with mine), people should stop praying.
The research wanted to test the help gained when critically sick people have others praying for them. Unsurprisingly, people who had others praying for them without them knowing that these prayers were taking place were just as well off as their fellow cripples who had no one praying for them.
However, the true surprise came from the statistical fact that those sick people who knew others were praying for them were some 10% worse than those that didn’t know or those that didn’t receive any prayers. The doctors involved in the research tend to explain it with the rushes of adrenaline in the systems of those that knew they were on the receiving end of prayers, which does not help in the recovery process.

I can deduct two conclusions:
The first is quite obvious – tension doesn’t help anyone, regardless of whether it was caused out of good intentions or not (which sort of tells me that I’m better off with my family on the other side of the world, but that’s something for another discussion).
The second is that most people can be wrong most of the time.

Monday, 29 May 2006

I was thinking

Of this: http://www.samsung.com/au/products/tv/rearprojectiontv/sp61j5hf.asp?page=Features
Which can be purchased through this: http://cgi.ebay.com.au/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=9730406275&rd=1&sspagename=STRK%3AMEWA%3AIT&rd=1

Well, it’s big, and it’s a relatively recent incarnation of the DLP technology. It has a HDMI input, but it only has 720 progressive resolution (and 1020 interlaces), whereas you can already get 1020 progressive if your wallet is thick enough.
It’s not the latest model, but for the size the price is good.
However, when we measured how it would look like over our fire place – or, rather, how it would totally hide the fire place that’s behind it – Jo got a bit of a shock. I agree: it would totally dominate our living room.
It seems like we need to think about it; the only reason why I’m thinking of it now is that the guy sitting next to me at work is in the process of buying a TV and I keep on helping him to the point I start thinking about it too much myself. Yes, it would be nice to watch our DVDs and stuff on a cinema proportioned screen, but it would also be nice to repay our mortgage – especially at a time when we’re spending lots on flights and we have some other mega expenses ahead of us.
The other, more sensible (aesthetics wise) option and overall better quality option is to get a projector with a screen we can lower down in front of our current TV. We’d have the good old CRT for SBS news, and a DLP projector for watching films. Problem there is that with the way projectors are designed, we’ll have to put it at the ceiling and bend our necks to watch the high picture or distort the picture with keystone effects and have it at a decent size. Alternatively, we can put the projector in between us on the table and enjoy a maze of cables as well as a more painful setup whenever we want to watch something.
Bottom line is that there are no freebies: it’s a compromise of size, quality and aesthetics.
I’m happy with our Sony 29” for now. It’s small in contemporary scales, but until high definition arrives big time it’s better quality than all the DLPs and their other compatriots. And the mortgage agrees, too.

Milestone


I think it's 2/3 me selling stuff and 1/3 (or even less) me buying stuff.

Sunday, 28 May 2006

Standard definition high definition

One of the reasons we were contemplating cable despite the stupidly "impressive" cost was content (namely, football). We recently addressed that problem with the internet.
Another reason, though, was picture quality. The place our house is located in is somewhat problematic, off the air reception wise, and as a result we forgot how a clean TV picture looks like over the last two and a half years. Channel 9 is mostly black & white, 10 comes and goes, 7 is decent, ABC has all sorts of interruptions, and SBS is as stable as one of John Howard's none-hard-core promises (and probably most of his hard core ones, too).
Some year and a half ago we got this TV antenna technician to come and have a look. He stood on the roof with his equipment, breaking a few tiles and trying to assess the recption scene. Basically, his conclusion was that our measely small antenna was a rather futile exercise and only something that could rival the Eiffel tower might give us a slight chance for some proper reception. The cost was rather scary, so we politely told him to replace the broken tiles (he managed to break a few more doing that) and fuck off.
Since then we didn't do much about it other than base our viewing on rented DVDs, which at $5.50 for three films come in very cheap. We'd have to watch 24 rented DVDs a month (which we don't) to get up to the cost of cable's cheapest package, and that doesn't count installation fees and all sorts of other cable related expenses nor does it count the fact we can't watch that many films. But the bottom line is that we were happy.
Then, recently, the internet came along, offering us a great source for pretty much everything we want to see on TV. There's no longer a need for our lives to be dictated by commercial TV.
And the last breakthrough came last week while we were at Aldi: As one of their special weekly product offers, they had an $80 standard definition digital TV box. That's a box that receives digital high definition transmissions and downgrades them into standard definition quality so we can watch them on our standard TV. There's definitely nothing fancy about it: it only provides a composite picture output, although sound options include PCM and Dolby Digital.
We took the dive: We had no idea whether our crap reception would provide us with a high definition picture or whether we're going to face a frozen frame, but we decided that at $80 we can take the gamble and in the worse case sell the box on eBay.
We were successful! The box works like a charm, and the picture is perfect. That is, when the picture is there, because from time to time you do get some signs of pixelization, and from time to time you do get freeze frames so bad it's unwatchable. Luckily, it seems like reception problems strike the commercial channels first, while the bulk of our TV watching is SBS and ABC (the only thing we watch on commercial channels is American Dad and Family Guy, on channel 7 at Thuesday nights). Lest we forget, the World Cup is on SBS soon, and it would all be available on great quality widescreen!
Digital TV doesn't mean great picture quality only, it also means that you get friendly menus and programming information. It means you can easily find programs you're looking for, and in the week we have this box you could measure how we watch more TV because it's easy to locate programs (the fact you can see a proper picture helps, too).
It's funny to see how the commercial channels, that specialize in broadcasting shit brain numbing material, also treat their viewrs like shit when it comes to their high definition broadcasts. Almost nothing they show is in widescreen, despite the fact that most of their programs was originally shot in widescreen. I'm talking about things like feature films. On the other hand we have ABC and SBS, that show everything in widescreen other than stuff that was originally shot in 1.33 which is shown with black stripes at the side - as it should.
Anyway, a worthy $80 investment, even if once we get a genuine high-def capable monitor we'd need another box for proper hi def quality. Together with DVDs and the internet, we have now totally revolutionized our TV watching habits. Goodbye, commercial TV - hope you'll sort out your ways soon, because you're about to become extinct!

Brown porn

Show me a man who says he doesn't enjoy watching porn and I'll show you a hypocrite. I'm not saying whether it's right or wrong or whether it's the best industry in the world to work for or whether it's quality material, I'm just saying it's enjoyable.
Which is pretty much the way I feel towards Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. It's fun to read - a major page turner where you always want to know what happens next - but just like porn, it's a piece of exploitative shit that's as high in literature quality as Debbie Does Dallas.
I thought I'd spare you of my opinion, but I couldn't help myself after reading Kostas' views at http://toohardtoget.blogspot.com/2006/05/code.html
My criticism towards the book comes in two fronts. First, as a piece of literature, it's really bad. It is nothing more than an account of events - there is nothing of the stuff you usually find in books, such as character development, which is where most of the "benefit" of reading a book comes from. It is also loaded with cheap techniques to make it more thrilling, techniques that are borrowed from the cinematic world because good literature doesn't have to stoop so low - things like "quick editing" where you move from one plot line to another too quickly to know what really went on, flashbacks, and the vilification of characters that turn out to be good while the real baddies are described as pure angels in the beginning.
If I had any doubts about this observation they vanished when I read Dan Brown's other Tom Hanks book that feels like a film script, Angels and Demons. It's exactly the same plot and same everything to the point I had advanced convulsive urges towards the end of it. But just like porn, I stayed till the end.
The second problem I have with the book is that it tells you pure bullshit under the guise of authenticity. Things like the Priory of Zion, which is a figment of some French guy's imagination; or things like the Knights Templar digging up something in Jerusalem; or the story of how Maria Magdalena arrived to France. As far as I can tell, the only element of Brown’s arguments that is true is that Maria had her own gospel which was censored out.
Now, personally, I couldn't give a shit on whether these arguments are true or not. First, because the book is a work of fiction; and second, as an atheist I definitely think that Mr Jesus was just as mortal and just as holy as me and as all other human beings (including nasty ones like Mr Adolf). But the fact is that in this day and age where people are consumed in a hopeless search for self identification, done mainly through the acquisition of stuff is marketed as something that would enable them to express themselves (a phenomenon otherwise known as consumerism), there is a significant market for a book that is supposed to deliver the real truth. Even if it's just porn.

As for the Da Vinci film... What can I say? Ron Howard was always a rather mediocre director. His best film so far, Apollo 13, had some good material in it and could have been a smash but was a miss; his other films are the same, including Beautiful Mind that got him a politically correct Oscar mainly because it was a shit year for the cinematic industry or Cinderella Man which was totally banal.
Da Vinci is not much different. It's a long film, and to Howard's credit I was never bored; but I was never thrilled either. It just sort of passed in front of me, never really touching me.
Unlike others, I don't think Tom Hanks did a bad job. I think he is a smashing actor playing a rather dull character which the book never really bothers to properly develop. I do agree, though, that the breaking of the codes elements of the film are poorly conveyed; you could argue that it's something that works better on paper than on film, but I would argue that no one put a gun to Howard's head and told him to be as loyal to the book as a was.
One thing I do credit the film for is its authenticity: A lot of it was shot on location, which is really nice. The fact Westminster Abbey was replaced by Lincoln Cathedral and Jo took me there not too long ago added to the fun element.
But overall, the film, just like the book, works at the same level as porn.

Saturday, 27 May 2006

Diesel Means Trouble

We're getting towards the business end of winter here: Last morning when we went out of the house it was 5 freezing degrees! For the record, the coldest I remember in Melbourne was 4. The difference is that while up until not too long ago I would step out of the house, utter something like "oh, it's freezing" to myself, and then step into the car and turn the heating on, now I step out of the house and stay out. I got to do it two days a year before - when I serviced the car - but now it's an ongoing love affair, and I can't say I love the cold.

During the day it gets up to the 12-15 range, but in the morning I have to wear a beanie hat if I don't want the bold patches and the antenna ears to freeze. On particularly cold mornings, such as the ones we'll be having for the next 3 months, I also require the aid of a scarf and gloves.
By far the coldest point of our journey to work is the wait for the train at Brighton Beach station. Standing right next to the beach, you get the sea breezes directly in your bones.
In order to warm our joints up, we are now in the habit of playing our favorite morning game while waiting at the station - "guess the train": Melbourne trains come in three types, and you need to guess which one it would be, depending on statistics, mood, and how lucky you feel for the day.
A third of the time you get the "new" trains. These are slick, smooth, and feel like a brand new jetliner. They also have seats where two can seat without facing two more, so they're nice and quiet.
Most of the time you get the "ordinary". They're pretty old, they smell, they're noisy, and they're cramped. Vintage seventies material, it seems.
But the most dreadful of all trains is the type I refer to as "Diesel means trouble". Those of you familiar with the adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine will know that the evil character there is called Diesel 10; and one of the most famous stories of the Thomas saga is "Diesel 10 Means Trouble". Thing is, my nephew used to be a Thomas junky, and at the time he used to call Diesel 10 "Diesel means trouble". And so when I got to encounter Melbourne's most shittiest train, I had to call it Diesel Means Trouble; I mean, it even looks the same as Diesel 10.
It's hard to imagine a worse mode of transport than Diesel Means Trouble. Where can I start? There's no air-conditioning or ventilation; you have to use windows (whereas on the other trains you can't use them), which is terribly effective when it's 5 degrees outside if you're terribly keen on starting the morning with a feeling of daggers cutting your face into little pieces.
It's noisy. Very noisy. And it's slow. And it's cramped: There is just no way I can sit opposite someone else in there; it must have been designed for your average gnome. Those said, given that in the fifties and before people were known to be much smaller than contemporary homo-sapiens, and given that this train couldn't have been designed any later than the fifties, it all makes sense.
There's only one question I need to ask, though: Why is it that when Steve Bracks or any other member of the Victorian Government takes a photo shoot next to a train, they always get to have one of the new trains behind them?
I would dearly love Mr Bracks or his Minister of Transport that keeps on saying how much Victorian Government supports public transport to give up their cars for a month or two and stick to public transport. I wonder how they would feel like after a ride in Diesel Means Trouble.

Friday, 26 May 2006

Whatever happened to all of the heroes?

I have three Arsenal replica shirts.
The first to be acquired is a Bergkamp one, bought in 99 during my first visit to Highbury. I had a four hour connection between Tel Aviv and Montreal, so I went for an adventure on the Piccadily line: A long ride from Heathrow to Arsenal station, a walk around the stadium, a visit to the shop (at the time in which merchandise meant something to me), and another underground adventure back to the airport.
The second shirt is a Pires, purchased for Jo when we met in London back in February 2002 and I had my second and last visit to Highbury (you can guess who wears the shirt more). And the third is a Ljunberg, one of Jo parents' wedding gifts.
It's not a coincidence that these shirts were purchased: These are my favorite Arsenal players. But it seems as if football heroes are an endangered species.
First it was Bergkamp that retired.
Today I've learnt that Pires is leaving Arsenal for Villareal. I can't blame him for leaving, but I will surely miss him. Yes, lately he has become more famous for diving than his quality football, but no one can deny that the guy can play, play well, play attractively, and also score a lot. I will surely miss him.
I hope Ljunberg will last. But for now, best wishes to Robert Pires!

The shirt story ends, and now let's move to the boxer short story:
During my first Arsenal visit in 99 I bought Arsenal boxer shorts. They were made in England and they were great (they're still are, even if they failed their lucky charm duties during the Champions League final).
During my second Arsenal visit in 99 I got another pair, because the first one was so good. These turned out to be made in China. And they turned out to be shit! They fold, they fade, they're a disgrace. Truly unworthy of being next to my ass.
Now I'm not saying they're bad because they're made in China; I'm saying that it's a disgrace the Arsenal club lowers their standards and gets cheaper quality stuff sold at the same price.
And the point, again, is that it's all about the money; there's no real reason to support these clubs as seriously as some of the supporters out there do when they lose perspective of the fact it's just a game operated by money hungry companies.

Thursday, 25 May 2006

It's been four years

It was four years ago today that I landed to a very cold Melbourne morning. My flight was supposed to land at 4:00am or so but it only landed at 6:30am due to fog, my brother probably went crazy circling the airport in his car, and that pretty much symbolyzed the way the next year or so went along for me.
A lot has happened since. The 31 years I had before in Israel now seem to be such a faraway experience that it's tempting to feel disbelief about it actually taking place. Not that it was bad, it's just that it was different: on one hand life in Israel pretty much sucks compared to life in Australia, yet on the other hands I had zero responsibilities, I never had to worry about day to day stuff such as cooking or laundry, and I was earning a lot of money.
So you could say it was quite a shock to find myself unemployed for more than five months, doing all sorts of casual work that made army life look glamorous, moving between apartments, while all the while Jo was in Sydney. The sudden move to the bottom of the food chain - where immigrants are in Australia - totally rattled and hummed me.
Eventually things worked out, but as usual I was in debt to others. If it wasn't for my brother I would have probably still been looking for a job now. Jo managed to do so well at work that she was sent to Melbourne. And when I finally got to start working under a short term contract, certain people gave me enough of their trust that I was able to establish myself.

What is the point of all this reminiscing?
Rewind back through those four years, and you will find that the young guy (as in naive guy) who came to Australia was quite a capitalist. By all accounts, was I able to vote back then I would have voted for the Liberals; and if you asked me what I think of the unemployed I would have told you that they are losers who wouldn't bother doing enough to get themselves educated and get themselves a proper job.
And now look what a few months of unemployment can do to one's views.
Back on my 35th birthday at the Fairfield Boat House, I told this story to Yaron (a fellow ex-Israeli ex-Amdocs guy, quite senior, whom I quite admire). He said something that rings very true: Sometimes you have to suffer to appreciate how things look like from the other side.

Not that I am the perfect humanist. I still twist my nose at people that want me to give money to charity (not that I approve of cold calling, but I could be more accommodating than I am). But I am truly bothered with a lot of things I couldn't give a shit about before: poverty, environment, etc etc.
A lot has happened during the last four years.

Wednesday, 24 May 2006

Uni blues

Forgive me for blogging about Scientific American articles again. It just happens that I now have the habit of reading a article of theirs over lunch, and they just happen to have some interesting articles.

The first article I want to mention is pretty straight forward. A relatively long article on Alzheimer, I was expecting it to be dead boring and full of scientific lingo that would be too complicated for this idiot to digest while eating his tuna.
I was surprised. Not that I can attest to have understood it to the point, but it turned out to be quite a fascinating overview of the disease, its cause (at the molecular level), techniques to fight it, high risk indicators, and other interesting relating facts such as the statistically proven reduced risk of catching this disease if one happens to consume anti cholesterol medicine.
All I am trying to say here is that this supposedly dry topic was very interestingly conveyed. It's all about the presentation, and this one was excellent. Where was this guy when I did uni?

The second article was a rather funny historical overview of the slide rule - that tool used by engineers and scientist before the age of the pocket calculator or the Excel spread-shit.
Unlike the Alzheimer article this was not the type of article that expanded your horizons that much, but it did make me reflect back on my uni days yet again.
During our 3rd year in uni, we had this course on Control Systems. Basically, it was about applied electronics: the design of systems to control, say, the guidance system of a missile (a rather exotic example, but also a real life example for our lecturer who came from the "defense" industry; don't forget I'm talking about Israel in here).
The funny thing was that our lecturer was rather old fashioned and kept saying "use your slide rule to calculate that" when none of us has ever used one but most of us had pretty sophisticated (even by today's standards) HP48 scientific calculators.
Before the final exam, Yuval, my dearly beloved uni companion, wrote this program on the HP48 that did ALL the calculations required for the test. You didn't need to think at all - just follow the program. Everyone got to use this program, and the lecturer managed to pick it up, asking us to put the calculations down on the test forms.
Not to be beaten, Yuval wrote a program that provided us with the middle of the way calculations, too.
At the test itself I didn't know a thing about Control Systems. I couldn't be bothered - it was as interesting as the political agenda of the Liberal party - and the lecturer was so bad (the opposite of that Scientific American article that was so good on the presentation front) that I just couldn't connect. So I based my approach on Yuval's programming and ingenious techniques such as scribbling lots of stuff on the graphs I had to draw and then erasing them, just so it would look like I genuinely created the graph rather than copy them from the calculator. If you think that's extreme, let me tell you about extreme: I spat on the form and rubbed it in so it would look like some genuine calculations took place there.
Bottom line? I got a 100 out of 100 score.
You could say that grades aside, I was on the losing side because I didn't learn much. You'd be right, but I and everyone else with me forced to take that course would tell you that it was the most irrelevant course in our degree, put there by conservative idiots (ala the Liberal party). They just didn't want to change the curriculum that was effective during the 50s.
I also argue that uni was not a place of learning. It wasn't Scientific American. It was a place of acquiring degrees and getting grades so that you'd be able to get a good job afterwards. Nothing about making a good, thinking person out of you (although they achieved that to one extent or another because you couldn't survive the attrition of 7-8 courses per semester over 4 years without developing some brains).
Our focus was on passing the courses, not on learning, because that was what we were measured on. And since I think this production line that refers to itself as "educational" is just a necessary piece of shit I have to endure in order to make a comfortable living now, I am perfectly satisfied with the way we tackled it.
So yes, I am saying out loud that the way the Western societies educate their young ones is just fucked up. Back on 6th grade I was reprimanded by my teacher (Aliza) for saying that (albeit at a more politically correct way). Now I am sure she would agree that I was right, big time.

Tuesday, 23 May 2006

Fire, Fire, Fire

We had our fire drill today, and the main lesson I've learned is that I should sincerely hope we don't have a real fire because if that happens to happen we're all going to die.
Instead of being at my office on the 27th floor when the drill was called out, I was "lucky" enough to be on a meeting on the 18th floor. Lucky because I had less steps to tackle on my way to the safe haven of the street down below; "lucky" because my coat was up the 27th floor, and because they disabled the elevators I had no way of retrieving it before evacuating to the street down below.
I basically followed the rest of the pack. We convened at the 18th floor's kitchen, where we had a bit of a laugh and many people had a cup of coffee (I'm not that much of a coffee drinker). I was wondering if hanging around is the normal procedure for evacuation, so I asked one of the wardens, and it turned out that it is: You're supposed to remain in your gathering place until the wardens tell you that the time to fuck off has arrived.
Eventually we did get the green light, and off to the stairs we went. There traffic flowed along the same way I remember traffic to flow during rush hour in Bangkok. It took us quite a long while - 10 minutes or so - until we got downstairs, with people joining us all the time from all the floors on the way.
Which is what I find so stupid and unrealistic about this drill: If I had even the slightest hint that a real danger existed, I wouldn't have waited in the kitchen while all the guys had their cup of coffee, and I wouldn't have stood in the stairs like an idiot waiting for others to patiently merge while sending an SMS to Jo telling her how stupid this fire drill is. No, I would have barged my way to the stairway, trumped all over everyone on the way, and made my way downstairs three steps at a time.
Yes, you have every right to call me selfish, but I also call myself "realistic", and I'm quite sure I wouldn't have been the only one to act this way. It's called human nature, and if the people organizing this drill think today's drill was a success they need a profound look in the mirror.
Anyway, once we left the building we made our way to the park near Parliament House, which is at the back of our building. I never approach the building from this side, though, so it was quite a revelation for me to discover that the Parliament train station is right next to my building (instead of the now routine 20 minute adventure to Flinders Street Station) and that the Melbourne Museum is just up the street (it's a very nice one; not as complete as the Louvre or the British Museum, but not as boringly huge as them, too).
With all the people traffic on the way it took a while till we crossed the roads to the park. Then they gathered us on this patch of grass that they enclosed with a string, which just happened to be the only patch of grass that was in the shade (blame the big ugly Orica building) while the rest was under the so nice and hazy sunshine that I craved because my coat was still up the 27th floor.
The rebel in me wanted to go to a coffee shop and warm up, but I was told I have to stay to the "roll call". We started having a chat about the world, the environment, and religion - a very interesting chat that lasted and lasted - while waiting for that roll call. That never came, though, and eventually we were just told we can go back; I should have followed my Israeli instincts and disappeared. Next time, gadget.
The queue near the elevators was huge, so on the way back we did go to the coffee shop. I know I said I'm not much of a coffee drinker, but I wanted something to warm me up, and we still we were still enjoying our existential conversation over cups of latte and capochino.
Eventually we went up and back to work, with two hours of the day just wasted, and effectively half of the working day vanishing into thin [cold] air.

The story would not be over without the tale of the conversation I've heard during lunch. This couple of guys were discussing the fire drill and how it meant guaranteed death if a real fire decided to take place while we were on the 27th floor.
Then one of the guys said, "yes, a fire is bad, but just think what would happen in case of a gas attack, like they had in Japan".
At this point I pointed out that in such a case we'd just step out to the balconies and enjoy the fresh air. However, I couldn't help thinking of the guy's twisted mind: How many gas attacks did Melbourne have during all history? How many gas attacks did Australia have to survive? The way that guy spoke made you think there are ten gas attacks for each fire, as opposed to something like millions of fires compared to absolute zero gas attacks (unless the guy was counting events that routinely take place in the toilets).
It's just amazing how irrational people can be. Especially when they're encouraged to think this way by a government that exploits this fear: I noticed today that ads all over the walls of Flinders Street Station call on people to tell the authorities in case they know something about a terror attack. It looks as if the government, with its popularity down lately, is calling upon its doom's day weapon again.

Monday, 22 May 2006

Happy birthdays

To celebrate all those whose birthdays are coming up or have just gone by, here's a little piece Jo played for you on our new guitar.
Just try this link out: http://web.aanet.com.au/reuvenim/hb.wav
No, Jimmy Hendrix has not been revived!

Today's letter to The Age

Dear sir/madam,

In the Lord of the Rings trilogy of books and films it took a woman - Eowin, portrayed in the films by Miranda Otto - for the world to get rid of the evil Witch King once and for all.
By the same token, I suggest Labor gives Julia Gillard a chance so that we could all get rid of the Howard regime for good.


Sincerely,
Moshe Reuveni

Sunday, 21 May 2006

If you're going to San Francisco be sure to get some sour dough bread in your hair

Back when Jo & I were preparing a registry gift list for our wedding, we were a bit short on ideas. Being that we weren't short of anything in particular other than money for our mortgage and things that cost way more than anyone would care to bring us as a gift (and it's not like we're short on those, it's just that I wouldn't argue against, say, a nice DLP projector if one fell in my lap or rather got itself attached to our living room's ceiling), we allowed ourselves to go wild.
One of those wild ideas was a bread maker. I only had home made bread once before, at Uri's place; it was interesting, but I wasn't that big bread fan. But still, we added one to the list.
My brother picked up the challenge and got us this contraption, and since then we haven't bought a regular loaf of bread. It's all home made. Yes, we do use ready made mixes most of the time, but we also add our own secret ingredients to it (say, sunflower seeds or caraway). But we also adventure into the realms of baguettes or home made pizzas. Most of the time, though, it's just our favorite - whole meal bread with all sorts of grains (for the record, I was never a big fan of white bread, and now I can't stand it - I just find it dead boring; a waste of stomach space).
The main exception to this home made bread rule is sour dough bread. The problem with sour dough is that you need to cultivate and culture the yeast - you can only create it from live yeast, as opposed to the yeast powder you can get at the supermarket - and we couldn't be bothered. And the other problem with sour dough bread is that we really liked it.
So when we visited San Francisco back in August we followed the advice of our Eyewitness guidebook (recently sold on eBay) and while visiting Wharf 49 or whatever wharf number it was we had a go at the famous Boudin bakery (http://www.boudinbakery.com/) - supposedly, an establishment as old as the Milky Way galaxy, or something along these lines.
I was incredibly impressed. In fact, I think that sandwich would probably qualify as the best sandwich I've ever had: a whole meal sour dough bun with grains, roast beef meat that was so tasty yet so clean and devoid of ugly bits of fat and other stringy shit, and some vegetation that really went well with the sauce (there was avocado there, I'm sure of that).
I enjoyed it so much that a couple of hours later I devoured an entire loaf of that bread on its own.
Since then we tend to indulge ourselves with sour dough breads from time to time, usually from Brumby's on Hampton Street (it's pretty convenient as it's right next to the Video Ezy we rent our DVDs from).
This Saturday we went to do our monthly or so round of shopping at Aldi. We like going there because Aldi brings back a taste of Europe: Their chocolates, for example, are European ones. And they're cheap, so for much less than the Cadbury shit you get at regular Australian supermarkets you get genuine chocolate as opposed to a piece of tasteless sugar that's supposed to resemble chocolate (sadly, it seems like Australians are fucked when it comes to chocolate just like their American counterparts that are so used to Hershey's they don't realize how good real chocolate actually is). It's not only chocolate, though: Aldi's olive oil is superb (and cheap), their pasta sauces are tasty Italian stuff, and I can go on for much longer.
Aldi also has this thing where they sell stuff totally unrelated to food. We bought two DVD players there for ridiculous prices. They are not what I would call audiophile material, but they would play anything and they were dead cheap.
Then there's the Lebanese shop next to Aldi, that sells things like sunflower seeds - nothing as good as the ones you'd get in Israel, but beggars can't be choosers - or raw thina ("tahini paste" in Australian dialects) from Jordan or halva with pistachios from Saudi Arabia. It's cheap, too, so we really like the place.
Anyway, during this week's Aldi expedition we also gave the bakery that's right next to the Lebanese shop a visit, simply because we were really tired and hungry. We asked for sour dough options, and they had this model called "San Francisco", so as a tribute to my stomach's San Franciscan adventures we got it.
Now, don't ask me what's so San Francisco-i about that bread, but it tasted damn good. Whole meal, sour dough, lots of grains - my favorites (caraway, sesame, sunflowers). A real pleasure.
When we got home Jo used the bread to make us brochettes (excuse spelling). It's this Italian dish that's usually served as a starter where you get a piece of bread soaked in garlic and olive oil with tomatoes on top. Jo added some feta cheese and onions to the equation and it was a delight.
Which made me realize how my diet has changed since meeting Jo. Back in Israel most of what I ate involved pitas and humus. I would still kill for those, but there is so much variation in what we eat now. And it's also healthy, and it's also food that makes you feel better after you eat it (unlike English food [just had to add that comment]).
Eating is one of life's simple pleasures, and we're now consciously making an effort towards eating stuff made of fresh ingredients. We don't rely on "ready made stuff" much (and if we do, it's usually good stuff). Yes, I do eat junk, but things are just so much better after you eat good food made out of good ingredients. Yet another small revolution in my life.

Doom's demise

We bought Doom 3 for the Xbox two weeks ago through eBay, and last Monday it arrived.
It's a game I wanted for a long while, but due to rather lukewarm reviews I didn't want to pay much for it; with the Xbox 360 now dominating the gaming world's attention, Xbox games have become cheap enough to merit the purchase of lukewarm titles you've been waiting for.
Three years ago, when we bought our Xbox, Jo & I played Halo together. It's a really nice game, tailor made for the Xbox, but it was the fun of playing it together cooperatively that made it great. Since then we've been looking for games to bring back that Halo spirit, but we weren't terribly successful about it. Halo 2, for example, is not half the game its predecessor was.
Doom 3 was a hope: Advanced graphics, a history that we both experienced, and a game that is not much unlike Halo. Add the fact that the Xbox version is published to have a cooperative mode, and we just knew we had to have it eventually.
And that's where the disappointment came: Yes, it does have a multiplayer cooperative mode; but this mode is only available when you play with others through the internet (on Xbox Live) or when you connect two Xboxes with each running Doom 3. I can understand that Microsoft and Activision will refer to this as multiplayer-enabled, but I don't understand why supposedly consumer helpful reviews would refer to it as such. It's as if a Ferrari salesperson would tell you that the Ferrari 360 drives four people, neglecting to mention that you need to buy two and drive them right next to one another to achieve that.
Fucking false advertising, if you ask me.
At least Doom 3 is not too bad. It's quite scary and there are definitely games that I like better - I mean, the formula of entering a room and being attacked from the side you least expect to be attacked from on a room by room basis wears off pretty quickly - but it is still relaxing to just shoot stuff. Even if the game is overall quite scary (and I haven't even used the surround sound option yet).

Talking about disappointments, another recent one is our new "high speed" (in Australian terms) internet connection of 1500/256. Yes, we have this faster connection speed now, but no - it doesn't do us much good.
Very rarely I do encounter a website that downloads quicker than before. But most of the time the reaction time I get is fairly similar to what I had before on a 512/128 connection.
So I went and did some speed checks. When checking directly with my ISP, my speed is indeed 1500/256. When checking at other Australian places, it goes down to 1200. But when I go to the USA or Europe, where most of the material is coming from anyway, speeds go down to 700 or less - even 170 in one case (some server in Florida).
Point is, while a bigger download quota is useful, faster connection speeds are pretty irrelevant when the overall infrastructure around you sucks (as it does in copper based Australia). Luckily, we have a government that invests in infrastructure (sarcasm, sarcasm). But more to the point, while my 1500 connection is good enough for now, the world will march on pretty quickly if Australia doesn't do something about it.

Friday, 19 May 2006

Massage, anyone?

Well, not if you are a cow. According to Jo, a Japanese restaurant she recently visited through work had an interesting menu item: a $70 steak.
The special thing about this steak and the justification for its rather Liberal pricing lies in the fact that it is made of massaged cows. Yes, you read correctly.
apparently, these are relatively young cows that receive massages on a daily basis to ensure their meat is nice and soft when the almighty decides their time has come to be served on a plate.
Not that I am about to turn vegetarian or anything - I think eating meat is perfectly natural given that we are all beasts of one sort or another - but the people who thought of massaging cows for the purpose of making their meat softer must be truly fucked up in the head. Not that the world is short on those.
As for me, I do not remember the last time I ordered a steak at a restaurant. Steaks used to be the clear #1 item I order at a restaurant, but since moving to this country where the meat on the supermarket is of superb quality and a barbecue is always available at the backyard, it seems awfully stupid to pay lots of money for something that is not better in anyway than what you can get at home.
Then we found this "South City Meats" place on Hampton Street, which tilted the equation towards home barbecuing even more than before (in a similar way to the internet taking the place of ordinary TV and cable): Their meat is just so good - the best I have ever tried, I think - that settling for what now seems to be expensive pieces of sheet seems to be ridiculous. Not that this place is cheap - Porterhouse is like $20 a kilo - but it delivers.
Just thought I should mention this in case one of my Israeli comrades who still thinks places like "Angus" and "Outback" are worthwhile decides to come for a visit and see (or rather, eat) the light.

P.S. Note the lack of apostrophes in the blogentry (evident by me writing "I am" instead of shortening it). Do not ask me why, but the blog refuses to accept them all of a sudden. Apologies for the lack of style.

Thursday, 18 May 2006

Human Nature

So, the better team won, Arsenal lost. As expected.
The game did make me ponder, though, and not just because it wasn't that bad a football match; it was mostly thoughts of the anthropological type that plagued me during the Champions League final match.

First, I observed myself. For a while there, somewhere along the 70 minute area, I was already dreaming of Arsenal lifting the cup. Indeed, as I said yesterday, hope turned out to be a dangerous thing, but it was this hope that drove me to chuck the quilt to the side and stand up to shout orders as both Henry and Ljunberg missed out on good opportunities to upgrade Arsenal's early lead to 2:0. If they managed that, the game would have surely been theirs.
But they didn't.

The second observation was the behavior of the Arsenal team. Just like their Champions League quarter final against Chelsea from a couple of years ago, there was a stage in which they seemed to freeze all of a sudden, as if incapable of moving. It was of little wonder that Barcelona capitalized on those few moments where the lapse of attention prevailed to score twice. I can only conclude that this goes to show that it's psychological fitness that counts during critical times, and not necessarily skill or fitness. Obviously, the fact that Arsenal had to run around with 10 men made them tired, but the break point was not there due to physical tiredness but rather due to the mental toll of maintaining their lead for so long under such a major opposing force - as evidenced by the fact they got their senses back and started running around again towards the end. At times like that, a person (or a team, for that matter) needs a healthy dose of leadership, which was obviously missing from the Arsenal side (including its bench, as Wenger failed to address the problem in time).

The third observation is perhaps the most interesting one, as it related to the man of the match. I'm not talking about Henrick Larson, who was responsible to both Barcelona goals; I'm not talking about Rikard, whose brilliant substitutions won the game for Barcelona; and I'm not talking about Jans Lehman, whose dire need for anger management has sealed Arsenal's demise early on in the game.
I am talking about the referee, who through a number of critical decisions decided the fate of the game and its character. Did Lehman deserve a red card? Why was Barcelona's perfectly legal goal disallowed? Why was Henry yellow carded? Why was Etoo's offside goal allowed?
All these are "important" questions to the subjective fan, but in the greater context they don't matter that much (unless you're a whiner like Wenger): the rule book says that the referee makes a decision on the spot, and if you don't like those rules, no one is forcing you to come and play; if you did come and play, though, you should accept the fact that the referee is a human being that makes mistakes and accept his/her ruling.
Anyway, what I noticed about the referee was the way his conscious was affecting his decision making process, be it for right or wrong.
Lehman should have been red carded if you follow the book, and Barcelona's subsequent goal should have been allowed by the very same book. No one would have complained much if the goal was allowed and Lehman got the yellow card - it would have been a win win of sorts to both teams as well as the neutral supporter who would have steel had a game on his/her hand - but instead the referee chose a tragic lose lose solution - no goal and no goalie.
Obviously, a poor decision on all accounts. A decision which shadowed him throughout the match.
Look at the goal Sol Campbell scored for Arsenal: It was scored from a set piece acquired through extreme and obvious theatrics by Eboue. The referee wouldn't have given Eboue the free kick if it wasn't for his dire need to compensate Arsenal for his harsh dismissal of Lehman.
Not long after that Henry got yellow carded for no particular reason. The referee was simply losing it under pressure.

One can learn a lot about the human spirit, its achievements, and its fragility just by watching Arsenal play the Champions League final. And lose.
Goodbye, Bergkamp.

Wednesday, 17 May 2006

Red Night

In a film which I like quite a lot (and I think Uri's with me on this one) they say that hope is a dangerous thing. Yet hope is also the thing that drives us in the hardest of times.
Tonight (or rather tomorrow morning, my time) Arsenal will lose, perhaps even be humiliated, by Barcelona in the Champions League final. It's good that it's going to be Barcelona, perhaps the most attractive team at the moment and definitely the most attractive team at the moment, that is going to do the honours instead of some boring Italian team.
But it is the hope that something will happen that will deprive any shred of a proper good night sleep tonight. And I fully admit it: It would be a dream come true if Bergkamp scores the winning goal. I know it's bullshit that in the grand scheme of things will not matter at all in any tiny bit with regards to the course of my life, but who gives a shit - that's why I like the game (plenty of other reasons exist, too, though).
So yes, Arsenal will lose, and Bergkamp will retire the same way he retired from the Dutch national team - on a losing match. There's a good chance he won't take part at all: Arsenal will probably play a careful 4-5-1 formation with Henry as the sole striker, and Bergkamp's only chance to make an effect is if Arsenal's down and Wenger's desperate.
Rational thought aside, tonight will be a red night.

Euro Trip 2

Here are our up to date Euro Trip flights. This time it's all sealed and paid for:

20 Sep 2006Cathay Pacific Airways Flight CX104 Airbus A330-300

FROMTODEPARRSTATUS

Melbourne
(Tullamarine Arpt)
Terminal 2
Hong Kong
(Hong Kong Intl)
14:4022:05
Confirmed
2 seats

Seat(s): 33C, 33A, Non-smoking, Journey Time: 9 hours and 25 minutes
20 Sep 2006SWISS Flight LX139 Airbus A343

FROMTODEPARRSTATUS

Hong Kong
(Hong Kong Intl)
Zurich
(Zurich Airport)
23:2006:15
21 Sep 2006
Confirmed
2 seats

Seat(s): 25K, 25J, Movie, Non-smoking, Journey Time: 12 hours and 55 minutes
21 Sep 2006SWISS Flight LX254 Airbus A343

FROMTODEPARRSTATUS

Zurich
(Zurich Airport)
Tel Aviv
(Ben Gurion Intl Arpt)
Terminal 3
09:4514:35
Confirmed
2 seats

Seat(s): 26B, 26A, Movie, Non-smoking, Journey Time: 3 hours and 50 minutes
30 Sep 2006SWISS Flight LX257 Airbus A321

FROMTODEPARRSTATUS

Tel Aviv
(Ben Gurion Intl Arpt)
Terminal 3
Zurich
(Zurich Airport)
04:3009:00
Confirmed
2 seats

Seat(s): 14B, 14C, Non-smoking, Journey Time: 4 hours and 30 minutes

30 Sep 2006SWISS Flight LX422 Avroliner RJ100
Operated by Swiss European Air Lines

FROMTODEPARRSTATUS

Zurich
(Zurich Airport)
Birmingham
(Birmingham Intl Arpt)
Terminal 2
12:1013:05
Confirmed
2 seats

Non-smoking, Journey Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes
08 Oct 2006SWISS Flight LX425
Operated by Swiss European Air Lines

FROMTODEPARRSTATUS

Birmingham
(Birmingham Intl Arpt)
Terminal 2
Zurich
(Zurich Airport)
18:4021:35
Confirmed
2 seats

Non-smoking, Journey Time: 1 hour and 55 minutes

08 Oct 2006SWISS Flight LX138 Airbus A343

FROMTODEPARRSTATUS

Zurich
(Zurich Airport)
Hong Kong
(Hong Kong Intl)
22:3516:40
09 Oct 2006
Confirmed
2 seats

Seat(s): 25K, 25J, Movie, Non-smoking, Journey Time: 12 hours and 5 minutes
09 Oct 2006Cathay Pacific Airways Flight CX135 Airbus A330-300

FROMTODEPARRSTATUS

Hong Kong
(Hong Kong Intl)
Melbourne
(Tullamarine Arpt)
Terminal 2
19:1006:15
10 Oct 2006
Confirmed
2 seats

Seat(s): 32C, 32A, Non-smoking, Journey Time: 9 hours and 5 minutes


The highlights of this trip include:
  1. Flying with Cathay Pacific, a company I detest for their policy of needlessly limiting luggage to 25kg and coming up with stupid excuses why.
  2. Leaving Israel at 4:00am on the eve of Yom Kippur. It's going to be a nightmare, with everyone trying to get out of the country and all the airlines trying to get as many people out before the airport closes. It would probably serve as a good reminder for why Australia is so much better than Israel.

Tuesday, 16 May 2006

Dictatorship of the Proletarian

Last week I had a meeting at work with people from the Marketing team. They were headed by someone who, given my limited experience in my new organization, seems to be quite a hot shot – the type of person that seems to know which strings to pull, the type you don’t want to be on “the other side”. Luckily, as with the vast majority of people in my new job, she is also a very nice person.
Anyway, we had our business meeting, and somewhere in the beginning someone mentioned the new budget introduced by Costello the night before and how nice it is. In usual fashion, I said something like “For the record, let it be said that I think this budget is a bad joke; instead of giving people $20 extra a month, which won’t benefit them much anyway, they should invest in infrastructure. In general I despise what this government does and what it stands for; but I will shut up now as I would like to keep my job”. And on the discussion went.
Come the end of the meeting, when everyone left the meeting room, that Marketing hot shot asked me to stay a minute. Being the confident person I am, I immediately thought that my cover has been exposed, that she saw right through me and realized that I’m the total idiot I am and that I’m just wasting her time, and that this is it – from this meeting I’m going directly to Centrelink to find myself a new job as a cleaner [for the record, I am still on probation].
It turned out she wanted to discuss politics. So while I was relived to learn I still have a job for yet another hour at least, she told me she thinks the Australian people have a problem realizing how well off they are and offered to bring me some material on new directions for the labour movement.
I agreed, of course. I would have agreed for politeness alone, but I also found it interesting to see what she has to say and what the material is all about, because Australians seem to be in complete apathy towards politics (until it comes to their own pockets and their investment properties), so I was curious to see what a politically aware Australian (as opposed to a bloody foreigner like yours truly) has to say.
She stood up to her word and yesterday she snuck behind me while I was listening to Led Zep and writing test cases (a task so boring that without music I’d probably prefer to cut my veins). I survived the mild heart attack to receive this booklet from her: A periodical called “Quarterly Essay” (check it out at www.quarterlyessay.com) featuring an article on the death of social democracy as we know it.
It’s not your average newspaper article: It’s a 70 page plus article where someone who obviously cares about the Labour movement spills his guts out.
I’ve started reading it, and I have to say it’s quite interesting. The entire affair so far has been interesting because it got me to learn something about the people of Australia and now I’m in the process of learning something about Australian history.
But most of all it’s a literature experience: I’m not used to reading an article of such length where someone expresses their opinion (as opposed to telling a fictional story or stating non-fictional observations). Think of it as reading a really really long entry in this blog; it’s not that common.
Last time I got to read something like that was in Literature class back in high school, where they forced us to read these articles by the like of Ehad HaAm (“one of the people”) explaining their late 19th century views on Zionism and the directions it should take. The language was ancient and unfriendly – just as trivial to read as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales would feel to a modern English speaker – and damn boring as it discussed old agendas that mattered to me as much as the history of ants between the two world wars.
This time around, though, things are different: the circumstances are interesting, I approach it with an open mind, the language is clear, the agenda is well laid out, and most of all the material feels relevant. I read it and I identify with it. It makes me think of what it says.
It’s funny what age does to you when you begin to take interest in such stuff, stuff you would have never bothered before when all you cared about was having fun but eventually you realize that what you used to call “fun” is pretty shallow and that you need substance to feel complete and satisfied. Or, to put it another way, the things in life that are worth having are not that easy to acquire – you need to make an effort.
Which is in exact contradiction to the current prevailing culture of consumerism and instant gratification. I don’t predict a bright future for those: we will not be able to sustain them for too long at their current levels.

Dark of the Matinee

Last night we went to see Mission Impossible 3 at Southland's cinemas.
There's nothing unordinary about that, other than the fact it was a Monday night, and to be honest I don't know when if ever we went to see a film last time on a Monday night in Australia. I'm mentioning it because the experience was very unordinary: the cinema was quite empty. It seems like the only visitors were with us in MI3 - 12 people in quite a large cinema. I'm sure some of the other screens in this multiplex were empty.
The surrealistic element of watching a big time film on a huge screen virtually on our own reminded me of the days my uncle used to take me to see matinees after school. They were usually rather empty affairs: we'd get to the cinema about an hour before the film starts because we didn't like the feel of being in a hurry (or it was probably my uncle who didn't like the feeling and I that was made to behave like him). We'd wait on our own for the box office to open, often accompanied by others (eventually) but never by too many others. And then we'd rush to the empty cinema to catch the best seats in the middle of the middle.
My best memory of that time is Empire Strikes Back. It was the first movie ever that I went to see knowing what I am about to do (I have distinct memories from other films before that, such as James Bond - The Spy Who Loved Me, but they're a blur; Empire is the first film I genuinely saw at the cinemas). It was also the very first day of third grade and it was also the very last day Empire was playing before being removed from the cinemas. The result of that all was that my uncle and I shared the huge cinema (it was before the age of the multiplex, when cinemas were truly big) with just one other guy. And with the Dolby Stereo sound and the film being as good as it was, it was quite an experience - so much so that I remember it 27 years later quite vividly.
Mission Impossible 3 is quite inferior to Empire. Well, most films are; and the cinema experience is different, too - it's no longer the novelty it was at an age where going to the cinema was a big deal because we simply couldn't afford it, and they simply don't make them like they did before. It's not just CGI that ruined the authenticity of films, they just all feel like they were made to a formula with zero originality.
MI3 certainly falls under that category. It's quite a stupid film, yet for a simulated matinee show it's just the ticket - a stupid rollercoaster that makes you feel good for two hours. It's got several layers of stupidity about it: It's not just that the action scenes try to go over the top of one another, requiring new suspension of disbelief heights; it's also simple plot stuff.
Take, for example, the scene in which Tom Cruise tells his wife how to operate a pistol - nothing advanced, just load and click the trigger - and she asks him how come he knows so much about guns. She must be retarded or something, because one only needs to watch a couple of American films to know how to operate a gun; and I'm not talking about Lethal Weapon or anything like that. Little House on the Prairie is enough to teach you.
I miss the days of the Empire. Third grade, those were the best of times: no worries, no responsibilities.

Sunday, 14 May 2006

Culture Club

One of the great things about reading is that from time to time you read something that sort of breaks through something in your perception of things. Reading seems to be the cheapest way of achieving such breakthroughs because it enables one to easily learn from others.
Last week I had such an epiphany while reading an article in Scientific American which tries to establish a rather innovative theory for explaining intelligence in men and in animals by observing the behaviors of different clans of orangutans.
Now we all know why man is intelligent: It's because god has created us this way (sarcasm, sarcasm). Jokes aside, though, common wisdom has it that it was evolution that made men smarter by necessity: the need to survive and the advantages of being smart meant that the smarter of the species survived.
That Scientific American article contends that observation. It claims that intelligence in society comes mostly from culture (with culture defined as the ability to learn stuff from others and reproduce the stuff that you learn). A good example is apes in captivity: while in the wild they don't tend to use tools, in captivity they tend to mimic their captors and do use them. I won't go over the article's statements, though; I'll just say that it caused these thoughts to spring into my mind, with flashbacks of unanswered questions now seemingly answered.
You see, I don't think of myself as a particularly intelligent person, yet my achievements do seem to indicate something in the intelligence department, something I have always dismissed as evidence for hard work rather than genuine intelligence. This article comes and explains why my explanation makes sense.
For a start, when I was a kid I got a lot of attention - lots of culture to learn from. I was the youngest child of my parents and by far got the bulk of their attention; not only that, I also got the undivided attention of my uncle. I credit my easy slide through school, especially at its earlier stages, to that.
I also had genuinely smart friends throughout high school and university. There is no better example for that than Yuval: During my first year in uni, when I was mainly hanging on and trying to figure out what was going on around me, I had a real hard time, failing a few tests. Once my relationship with Yuval was established, though, things were totally different: I worked my guts off, but I got some major achievements, shadowed only by Yuval's own achievements. Being that both Yuval and I are not big on egos I never had a problem with that, and in fact I can say I take pride of being in Yuval's shadow. Anyway, throughout uni we developed this approach to courses where we slowly struggled on until the last year ended up as a relatively easy affair.
I owe a lot to other cultures I have been influenced from. Take books and reading, for example: Would I be the reader I am now if it wasn't for people like Uri and Jo being there at the right time? I wouldn't be aware of the existence of Scientific American if it wasn't for Uri showing me this magazine his brother subscribes to.
Just have a look at my Stanislav Lem book collection:

  • Solaris: An early gift from my uncle.
  • Pirex the Pilot: My father bought it for me.
  • The Further Adventures of Pirex the Pilot: A gift from Uri, back in the last 90s.
  • The Futurological Congress: Another gift from Uri for my last birthday.

And my point? That I am lucky to have such influences.
I am also quite lucky not to have had bad influences. I was never under any pressure to try drugs, for example, and indeed I never tried drugs. I was exposed to cigarette smoking for brief period only. And mainly by growing up away from Australia, I don't enjoy alcohol at all (although I can enjoy a good wine for its taste).
I also managed to survive the "speed" culture every male man is severely exposed to: I no longer drive like a maniac trying to prove to everyone around me that I am Bigos Dickus incarnate. Mind you, for a long while I did, and I am still aware that I can still easily inflict great tragedies upon myself while commuting.
But: the bottom line is that I was lucky to be involved with the right cultures most of the time, enabling me to learn good stuff most of the time, as dumb as I am. I can only spare a thought to those that were not lucky as I was; I don't think society in general does enough for them, yet I am convinced that society would be better off if more people were better off.

Saturday, 13 May 2006

I'm spinning around

Australia's ruling Liberal government is an institution that I generally despise from the bottom of my heart, but they did help me observe this rather interesting observation: That often, by claiming to be the opposite of what you or by emphasizing your weakest spot, you can actually get away with that deficiency. In the Liberals it's them being able to make people think they are exactly the opposite of what they claim to be - instead of Liberal they are actually a bunch of religious and very white conservatives - they manage to convince certain people that they are actually liberal; thus they managed to convince a friend of mine who is gay to vote for them, even though parliament members from this party have been quoted saying that lesbians should be burnt at the stake.
They manage to perform this not so trivial task by using spin. John Howard has become the master of spin: He knows exactly how to present things so that they would work for his interest, and he knows exactly when to present things so that his fuck ups would be hidden. Take the AWB scandal, for example: By now I don't think there's anyone out there who thinks the government was clean of paying Saddam Hussein kickbacks while sending troops to remove him, but does anyone in Australia think about it much anymore?
The latest example of this well oiled spin machine is this week's budget. Anyone who thinks about it for a second sees it for what it is: a distribution of wealth back to the rich, with nothing in it to promote the future of Australia in terms of investments in infrastructure or in the people or in the form of services. When you realize all the money is coming from digging stuff out of the ground and not from anything that is truly productive and long lasting, you see this budget for what is it: a crime against the future people of Australia.
But does anyone really bother to think of the budget? Not if you read the papers or watch the news. Aside from a few editorial and analysis columns in The Age, all you can hear is people saying how great the budget is and how well off "families" are now.
And why is it like that? It's like that because the government's spin machine has totally overpowered anything remotely close to proper journalism in this country. Nothing in Australia is investigated to get to the bottom of things; all the news comes directly from the government with hardly any processing in the middle. Not that this should be a big surprise when you consider that the biggest news reporters are big companies that stand to earn a lot from government policies.
The best example I can think of for this poor level of journalism is not the latest budget fiasco but rather the last federal elections. Howard won them by such a huge margin that he is now in total control of both Senate and Parliament, yet no one before the elections has predicted that landslide victory; all you could hear was that it's all very tight and 50-50 and we could never guess who the next Prime Minister is going to be. And if you thought that The Age might offer some salvation you're wrong, because its reporters were amongst the ones saying "this is going to be the tightest elections since super glue was invented" and its editors have published an editorial urging people to vote for Howard because he's the suitable person for the job (and no, I'm never going to forget them that).
I guess the bottom line of what I am trying to say is that people nowadays don't think. We're all good, well trained consumerists, happy to be spoon fed with news and analysis, just let us consume and don't make us think.
When I think about it, the main conclusion I arrive at is that this thing we call democracy is not what it's hyped up to be. Sure, personal freedom is priceless, and I'm not advocating dictatorships or communism; I just think that we deserve better. Throughout history, the prevailing struggle has been between the well off trying to defend their resources and the poor trying to get more out of the well off, with democracy supposedly putting everyone on equal stand. Yet it does not take a long overview to realize that the best indication for financial success in the future or for acquiring key decision making positions is whether you started off your pursuit with a lot of dollars in your coffers. Not much more than that is required.
Democracy's main value is with it leading people to believe they can actually "make it" when in fact just a few of them do, and those that don't make it are forever damned to believe they just didn't try hard enough.
As for me, I choose to take myself out of this race: I do not consider financial success to be much of an indicator as to how happy I am.

Friday, 12 May 2006

The Cough Show

Last night we went to the theater to watch a play called Doubt. The play takes place in this monastery that's also a school and it features very few actors; I expected it to be about the doubts that come when you believe a pile of bullshit, but it turned out to be doubts about a priest: did he sexually harass a kid or not, and the way the different characters addressed their doubts - some giving the priest compassion, other acting quite cruelly towards him.
I've said it here before: I have a problem with theater. Mainly that I don't like it. That said, this play was an exception - I liked it. I liked it because it had a thought proving story that was well presented, as opposed to the plays I usually end up seeing where people all of a sudden burst in song.
Still... I think the theater format is past its due date. The acting in a theater just has to be over dramatised in order for people sitting on back rows to be able to catch the drift, and it's unnatural. Not everyone amongst us is a drama teacher that knows how to make a big fuss out of nothing; usually, we handle even big stuff with just subtle nuances and move along.
Another thing was the play's duration: It was only an hour and a half long. It didn't even have an intermission; It didn't end at a happy end or a tragic end the way most stories do, it rather ended abruptly (which was good for the thought provoking aspect of it), but together with the short duration it left me wondering whether we need to go back and watch the second half (but that can't explain why the actors came and bowed to the sound of continuous clapping). Luckily, we had a voucher that gave us one free ticket, so we only paid $66 for this play; had we paid $132 for an hour and a half I would have felt even more short changed than I do now.
There were two other issues with this play. The first was that I had a real hard time understanding what the actors said, especially this actor that spoke in an Irish accent. Yet another point in favor of subtitled DVDs as opposed to the theater.
The second was the worst thing of the night: The play was escorted with a band of a few hundred coughing people. Throughout the play, people all over the crowd coughed. It was so bad that I couldn't concentrate on the play and just laughed. It was so bad that it made me want to cough even though I had no particular reason to cough. It was bad.
Yes, it's that time of the year in Melbourne again where colds are everywhere you look, just waiting to pick on you. Miraculously, I haven't had one for a while now (more than two weeks), something I credit mainly to our treadmill and the walking in the [very] fresh air that I get to do on my way to work. It certainly revives you.
But still, it's all just a question of time until the right virus attacks you. One of the negative issues about the working environment in Australia (a subject I have discussed extensively in the past) is that the offices tend to be huge open spaces - so pretty much all it takes for you to get sick is for someone else on your floor to be sick. Enough time and it would trickle its way to you.
Back in Israel things were different: Open spaces were not that common. In all the jobs I've had back in Israel, I was always in a room with either myself or up to three other people; not the 50 people I share the floor with now or at Ipex before.
Still, if it wouldn't be for work, I'd catch the cold on the train. The bottom line is that I am obviously not cut out for cold weather. Like it or not, I have Israeli genes. The symptoms are obvious each year: My skin feels like its peeling off, certain organs feel like they're about to drop off (I'll leave it to your imagination to guess which organs I'm talking about), the nose is constantly runny (not only when I have a genuine cold), I tend to constantly bend my back to keep the few bits of warmth I have (thus generating back pain). This week I got something I didn't get since the age of ten: an ear infection. And from time to time (but quite often) I genuinely catch a cold.
The funny thing about it is that when we visited Israel I couldn't stand the heat and couldn't believe I survived 31 years of that; but come winter here (which is not that bad when compared to European winter), I realize that Israeli summers are uncomfortable, but at least they don't kill you the way cold does.
But do I really want Israeli weather in here, with its cockroaches and all? No.
Then what the fuck do I want, you ask? I don't know. I want perfect weather, I guess - give me March-April-November Melbourne weather on a regular basis, please!

Thursday, 11 May 2006

Evil eyes

At last I managed to capture one of the evil possums plotting against us and shitting all over our driveway in the act.
It stood there in typical fashion right above me as I took the garbage bins out. The flash's blaze didn't bother it much and it just continued consuming leaves. Posted by Picasa

Today's letter to The Age

Dear sir/madam,

The Howard government is about to invest more than a billion dollars of my money on its new Smart Card adventure.
This new card is claimed to be not mandatory, yet according to Howard's IR legislation I will have to use it if I want to visit my doctor for the now mandatory doctor's certificate I need to show at my place of work after the occasional cold strikes me down. Therefore, the card is more mandatory than most mandatory things in life.
My privacy is supposed to be protected with this card, yet it will carry personal information of mine of a yet undisclosed nature. What is guaranteed is that this card is going to carry a lot of information about me, information that I for one wouldn't particularly like to share. I know I'm being picky, but that's me; you see, I have migrated to Australia from Israel, where a mandatory national ID card is required as of the age of 16.
My personal ID card contained a "Nationality" field in which it stated "Jewish", despite the fact that I am an atheist and do not consider myself a Jew and despite the fact my religious beliefs are of nobody's business.
So yes, I am worried that eventually this new smartcard will end up carrying similar "Nationality" or "Religion" information on me. I am sure that it would not take much for government authorities to ascertain that such information is mandatory, be it for health related reasons or for security reasons. It could even end up on the card without us being aware of it.
Now, I am not going to debate on whether a billion dollars would suffice in financing this smartcard adventure, and I am not going to argue the validity of the estimates that say we will earn four billion dollars by implementing such a card. I am, however, going to plead the government to consider the following: One of the things I cherish most about Australia is that my background does not matter at all in my interaction with society and government authorities. For example, I was free to marry a person of another religion (try doing that in Israel). The key point here is that I am free, and once we go down the smartcard path that freedom will be endangered.
Please, do not take my freedom away.


Regards,
Moshe Reuveni

Wednesday, 10 May 2006

Losers

I'll start by apologizing for talking football once again, but defend myself by arguing that it's the end of the season and that whatever happens I have every right to talk football because who knows when my team is going to get the chance to lose in the final of the Champions League again.
The topic of discussion now is Tottenham, who actually made an official request to the English Football Association (the FA) to have their match against Westham replayed because most of the first team members suffered from food poisoning. During the "real" game that took place this Sunday (Monday, Aussie time), Westham did Arsenal one major favor by beating Tottenham and ensuring Bergkamp's last domestic match ever ended with a high note as Arsenal took the 4th place that leads to next year's Champions League which leads to lots of money while Tottenham has to settle for 5th place and the much less prestigious UEFA Cup.

First, I have to say that anyone who can ask for a replay under such circumstances is a loser that deserves to be relegated from big time football. As much as I appreciate the guy, Arsenal's Wenger is a quite specialist whiner, but I doubt even he would stoop so low. Tottenham themselves scored a dubious goal against Arsenal not too long ago while two Arsenal players were lying down, and while Wenger made a big fuss of it no one ever dreamt of having a rematch. Arsenal are still making a fuss of that incident, and I'm sure Tottenham will make a big fuss of theirs for some time, but both should move on. It's just a sport, for crying out loud.

Second, I have trouble with the philosophical idea of having a rematch. A game is played, and whatever happens happens; theoretically, because it's just a game, we should not focus on the mistakes that happen during the game but rather learn to accept them and hope they will even out during the season in the sense of "you win some you lose some".
A couple of weeks ago, an AFL (Aussie rules football) where one team was leading as the siren ended the game ended up in a draw after the referee failed to hear the siren. The elders of the league decided to change the decision in favor of the team that led during the siren's call, stating that the game ends when the siren sounds. I have one thing to say: Bullshit.
According to this logic, every game that was ever played should be adjusted, because every one of them has referee mistakes. There could always be contentions about yes offside no offside, yes foul no foul, yes red card or no, and one team can always say that a particular decision or lack of by the referee has totally fucked up its game.
The point is, we shouldn't care, because we should accept the fact that the rules of the game mean we should take whatever happens as it happens because that's what the game is defined like.
The problem is, of course, that is no longer a game for quite a while now. Once money enters the equation, the "sport" factor is diminished into tiny proportions, and all people can see is the green.
And that's sad. As well as pathetic.

I'll finish the discussion by quoting from that prestigious British newspaper, known throughout the world for its precision journalism and its third page:
THE chef at the centre of the Trot-enham Hotspur food poisoning probe insisted last night: “I a’m NOT an Arsenal fan.
Maurice Reuben-Sealey prepared the lasagne blamed for tummy bugs that ended Spurs Champions League hopes. But he angrily denied his dish was a health hazard and said he had no idea why ten players fell ill before their crunch game against West Ham. Maurice, of Camberwell, South East London, told a pal yesterday: “I seem to be the focus of the investigation, but it was nothing to do with me. “I ha’ve been asked whether I support the Gooners but that's absolute bull****! I don'’t support any team. “There was nothing unusual about the meat and nothing wrong at all as far as I was aware. “The police have taken away a sample of the dish and I ha’ve made a statement. “I ha’ve a good reputation in the industry and there was nothing I could do. I know that lasagne was perfect.
Ten Spurs players including Edgar Davids, Michael Carrick and Robbie Keane were stricken at the five-star Marriot hotel in Canary Wharf. All the stars dined in a private room on Saturday night. Next day they lost 2-1, leaving Arsenal to claim fourth place and the final European cup spot. Health officials will not know the exact cause of the bug until Thursday.

The reason why I quoted this exhibit of investigative journalism should be obvious to the eagle eyed amongst thee: We know who did it. We know who is responsible for Tottenham's food poisoning.
And if you're too slow, let me explain.
Maurice Reuben? I beg to differ.
"Maurice" is none other than the French version of the originally Hebrew name Moshe (also known as Moses in English speaking countries). "Reuben" is none other than the Latin version for the Hebrew name Reuven or Reuveni.

Got it? It was I. I was the one that poisoned the Tottenham team!